The Transient and the Permanent

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as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 26, 2021

It is good to be back in the pulpit. I have missed you. I have not been gone from First Houston these past weeks. But I have been absent from Sunday morning worship. And worship, this thing the congregation does together–whether online or in-person–sits at the core of the life we share.

The title of my sermon this morning is “The Transient and the Permanent.” It is part of our loose yearlong theme “Reimagine.” This month we’re narrowing in on reimagining life together. Rev. Scott and our guest preacher Kye Flannery helped us get started on it with a set of excellent sermons on reimagining our lives and relationships.

Scott’s sermon last week was particularly strong. If you have not heard it I suggest you go back and listen to it. It is one of the best ones he’s preached since coming to serve First Houston. In it, he suggests to us that one way to begin with the task of reimagining our relationships–which is another way of saying the life we share–is by reframing them. 

Reframing… Scott opened his sermon with a lovely description of the work of the French artist Bernard Pras. Pras, you might remember Scott telling us, is known for creating art from “seemingly random objects, carefully selected by color and size.” He takes discarded trash–worn out shoes, falling apart dolls, potato chip bags, colorful beads, bits of wire–and assembles them into renditions of some of the great acts of human creativity. He has reimagined Hokusai “The Wave” with its white crest crashing down on a tiny boat and Van Gough’s “Starry Night” with its luminous yellows and swirling, circling, entrancing blues. 

I am not going to recount the rest of Scott’s sermon for you. But I invoke it and Pras’s art–where he reframes and reimagines trash as a source for creativity and challenges the viewer to question how they see everyday objects–because this act of reframing is essential to the work of reimagining that we are going to be engaged in throughout the next months.

We are focusing on reimagining this program year because we are living in a period when it feels necessary to reimagine just about everything. The pandemic has forced us, willing or not, to change the way we live in so many different ways. Our families, our working lives, our friendships, the way we experience art, the manners in which we consume, and how we live in community have all shifted dramatically in these last months. Whatever happens next, and what exactly will happen and how all of this will nobody really knows, we will not be returning to something resembling the before times.

The pandemic is not the only thing that is shifting how we live. The climate crisis is radically transforming everything. So much so that Naomi Klein was able to summarize its impact in the title of a book she published a few years ago as “This Changes Everything.” The purpose of that book was push us to stop living in denial and start waking up to “the full reality of this crisis [which] will change everything.” By doing so, she hoped to help people reframe and reimagine the climate catastrophe as humanity’s last, best, chance to pursue “postive change” and “demand the rebuilding… local economies, to reclaim our democracies… to remake our sick agricultural system… to open borders to migrants… to finally respect Indigenous land rights…”

The pandemic… the climate emergency… we have reached a period in human history when, whether we want to or not, we have to reimagine pretty much everything. It is not a comfortable epoch to live through. We humans tend to crave stability and routine. It can be quite disconcerting not having any clear sense of what is going to happen next. As Board President Dr. Ruth Hoffman-Lach wrote in her letter to the congregation Friday, in these times “our desire for consistency and predictability increases.” And she admitted, “Recently, I found myself identifying with the child whose parent reported they were crying because ‘We had tacos for dinner, and it wasn’t Tuesday.’”

All this change and disruption, this need to reimagine and reframe, returns me to the title and the topic of my sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent.” It is not an original title. It invokes the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker’s beloved nineteenth-century sermon “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” In that sermon, Parker attempted to make sense of what in religion is permanent “like the heaven above, with its sun, and moon, and uncounted stars” and what was transient, “[l]ike the clouds of the sky… here to-day; to-morrow, all swept off and vanished.”

“The Transient and the Permanent”… when I shared the sermon’s title with someone this week they had a reaction that caused me to reconsider exactly what I was preaching about. 

“What are you preaching about this Sunday?,” the exchange began.

“The Transient and the Permanent,” I replied.

“Life is transient. Death is permanent,” they responded.

Life is transient. Death is permanent. Parker’s sermon revolved around a simple claim: the “form Religion takes, the doctrines wherewith she is girded, can never be the same in any two centuries or two,” and here I ask you to excuse the gendered nineteenth-century language, “two men.” However, whatever its form, the aim of religion, Parker taught, was the same. It was to attain “oneness with God” and seek after “a divine life; doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives.” Such an objective was desirable, Parker believed, because each human being “is made in the image of God.”

Life is transient. Death is permanent. The subject to which I intended to direct our attention this morning was the changing nature of our religious communion. And so much is changing. Dr. Hoffman-Lach wrote you this past Friday about the end of multi-site ministry. For almost a decade, First Houston has been operating satellite campuses. We called the building in which I am now preaching the Museum District campus. And we also had a worshipping community in Richmond called the Thoreau campus. For several years there was a third campus in first Copperfield and then in Spring named the Tapestry campus. For a couple of years there was even a campus near Lake Chapala, Mexico. 

Now, First Houston is operating a single campus again. I am not preaching from the pulpit of the Museum District campus. I am simply preaching from First Houston’s pulpit. 

I know that many of you are still processing this change. And that there are a variety of feelings and thoughts in our community about what has occurred. It has great significance for our religious community. And it is something I am sure that we will be reflecting on a great deal as we reimagine life together in the coming months. If you want to talk with either me or the Board about what has transpired and where we are headed, I encourage you to do so. I am here for you, and I know that the Board greatly desires your input.

My role with you, first as interim and now as developmental, senior minister is to aid you in the act of reimagining this religious community. When the Board hired me as your developmental minister it did so with the objective that we would work together to answer five open questions, called developmental goals. One of these was: “What is our vision for and commitment to multi-site [ministry]?” That is a question that appears to have been answered. 

Another question, perhaps the central question, was “[w]hat kind of a church do we want to become?” And here, I want to trouble the waters a little bit, and suggest that part of the answer to the question might well reside in the word “appears” I just used in my statement that the question of multi-site ministry appears to be answered. For while it is true that First Houston is no longer “one church in three locations” or even “one church in two locations,” it is also true that our worshipping community is gathering in various places, across various platforms, and in ever changing ways. 

I am offering this sermon twice today. First at the 9:30 a.m. service and then again at 11:30 a.m. Some of you are here with me in the sanctuary. A greater number of you are participating in worship online. Most of you who are doing so are watching one of the livestreams on our website, YouTube, or Facebook on Sunday while it is happening. However, a portion of you will–or should I say, are? the tenses are quite confusing when trying to speak to people who will be hearing something in the future that I am saying right now… Anyway, a portion of you will watch an archived version of this service sometime after it is held.

What is more, this coming Saturday, the Spanish language ministry team, Mark Vogel, and I will be offering our first in-person service. It will also be livestreamed and archived. We are one of the very few Unitarian Universalist congregations in the world that offers a Spanish language ministry. I fully anticipate that more people will join us online than will with us in the sanctuary. Actually, I would not be surprised if five or six times as many people participated in the service online than joined us in-person. Nor would I be surprised if the people who joined us online for the service did so from places far away. The entirely online Spanish services that we offered earlier in the pandemic were watched by people from as far away as Chile and Guatamela.

First Houston might not be a multi-site congregation in the same way that it was for most of the last decade but it is now a multi-platform congregation. And in pursuing the question, “[w]hat kind of a church do we want to become?” we are going to have to reframe and reimagine the question, “What is our vision for and commitment to multi-site [ministry]? as “What is our vision for and commitment to multi-platform ministry?” What does it mean to be a religious community where some of us gather in-person and some of us participate online? Where some of us worship primarily in English and others of us worship mostly in Spanish? 

What is changing about our religious community? And what remains the same? What is the transient for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston and what is permanent? 

Here I return to the words of my earlier interlocutor. Life is transient. Death is permanent. This is a claim that is not held to be true by all religious communities. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church used say, “religion… is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” The world’s religions have responded to that dual reality quite a bit differently. Trinitarian Christianity, for instance, has organized itself precisely in opposition to the proposition, “Life is transient. Death is permanent.”

The longtime preacher at Harvard’s Memorial Church, Peter Gomes, described the Christian faith as living, laboring, and loving “with Christ who sets us free from the fear and corruption of death.” He quoted the poet John Donne to summarize his theology, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; death thou shall die.” Such a tradition argues, in essence, “Death is transient. Life is permanent.”

I am not sure about you, but I have no such confidence and can only offer the words of William Shakespeare who described death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns…” And seek solace in the wisdom of the Chinese poet T’ao Ch’ien who advised:

…Once you’re 

dead and gone, what then? Trust yourself 

to the mountainside. It will take you in.

The transient and the permanent. Wherever you are, whether you are here in the sanctuary with me for this transitory experience of worship, or you are joining us from home–perhaps participating in worship in your pajamas while drinking coffee–I want to suggest a few things about the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston that will remain constant as we seek to answer the question, “[w]hat kind of a church do we want to become?”

First, we will remain constant in our core theology. We will continue to proclaim, in Theodore Parker’s words, that every person “is made in the image of God.” We will offer this witness in a variety of phrases. Sometimes, invoking the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we will say we honor the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Whatever language we use, we will acknowledge that the “forms, doctrine, and life” of this witness to human dignity are diverse and that how the members of this congregation proclaim it will change over time.

Second, we will continue to be a covenantal community whose members recognize that what we believe is far less important than what we do. For generations anyone who has joined this or any other Unitarian Universalist congregation has affirmed a behavioral covenant about how we will share our lives together. Reimagining the covenant of First Houston is one of the tasks before us as we engage in the work of developmental ministry. Rev. Scott and I will have a great deal more to say on the subject in the coming months. But for now, please know that whatever is transient about First Houston the permanent is found in the committments that we make to each other and the relationships that we nurture amongst us.

Third, we will collectively agnostic about the question as to whether my interlocutor’s claim “Life is transient. Death is permanent.” or the alternative claim “Death is transient. Life is permanent.” is correct. Of the undiscovered country, we will concern ourselves but a little. Instead, we will do what we can to get about the business of building the world we dream of about. We will do what we can to confront the climate emergency. We will speak out against the immigration ongoing crisis. We will demand that migrants be treated with grace and dignity. We will work to dismantle white supremacy and rebuild democracy. We will preach peace and offer a vision of a less violent and more beautiful world. We will do these things because what is permanent about our religious tradition is its insistence that congregational life should challenge us, in Parker’s words, towards “doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives.” 

It is a tradition, which, as Marta Valentín tells us, honors “being” and encourages us, lovingly, to be present to the planet on which we live. To remember, as she suggests:

the leaf a guest in this life,

knowing in its being that its story

is its own history of salvation,

even amidst a million leaves in the forest.

And that in being present to the world we must do what we can to love it and salvage it.

“[W]hat kind of a church do we want to become?” A great deal more will be transient. Our music and liturgy will change. Mark is leaving us at the end of December to take up a full-time position with Lone Star College. My contract as your developmental minister will end in July 2025. At some point in the future, you will have another senior minister. At some point, all of the staff will change. At some point, the membership of First Houston will be completely different than it is now. 

As we consider the question, “what kind of a church do we want to become?” we will do so in world that it is changing all of the time. Amid a congregation where we find ourselves reimagining worship and the worshipping community–hello, again, to those of you joining us online. 

As we consider our question, we will do so as a religious tradition that rests upon the claims: every person’s life has inherent worth and dignity; how we share our lives together is more important than what we believe; and part of our calling is to do what we can to confront injustice and build a more beautiful world. 

“[W]hat kind of a church do we want to become?” We are invited to answer this question. We are invited to consider the transient and the permanent of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of houston. We are invited to do so together. In the hopes that you will take that invitation, I invite the congregation, whether here in our sanctuary or participating online, to say Amen.

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